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Zoo Director Phil Frost speaks as the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (BREC) holds a Groundbreaking ceremony at the future entrance of the Baton Rouge Zoo located at 13305 Scotland Avenue to celebrate the upcoming Phase I renovations for Greenwood Community Park and BR Zoo amenities Tuesday December 8, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. This large-scale transformational project will kickstart improvements to the zoo and the park. BREC will present entirely new, unique, high-quality attractions, modern zoo exhibits, and iconic recreation environments that have never before been seen in the parish or region. Speakers for the event included BREC Superintendent Corey K. Wilson, Mayor-President Sharon Broome, BREC Commission Chair Lloyd Benson, Asst. Superintendent of Planning & Engineering Reed Richard, BREC Foundation President, Chris Ferrari, Zoo Director Phil Frost and a host of elected officials.

The longtime head of the Baton Rouge Zoo, who has led an multi-million-dollar effort to revamp the animal park since failing to move it to a new location in 2018 and seeing it lose its longtime accreditation, will retire early next year.

Phil Frost announced Thursday that Feb. 4 would be his final day as zoo director. A search for a successor will begin immediately.

"We are thankful for Director Frost’s contributions and look forward to discovering his remarkable replacement when the time arrives," BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson said in a statement. He lauded Frost's work to expand the zoo's staff, add new exhibits and enter a partnership with the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine to increase education programs.

Frost began his career in 1981 in 1981 in Springfield, Illinois, and later served as director of zoos in Tennessee, Illinois and Indiana. He joined the Baton Rouge Parks and Recreation as zoo director in 1998.

“My start in the zoo world was kind of by chance, but I’ll tell you over 40 years, I’ve never looked back a second and regretted that decision,” Frost said in an interview Thursday.

Frost sought Baton Rouge’s vacant director job because of the zoo’s reputation and a friendship he had with the zoo’s first director, George Felton Jr.

During his long tenure at the helm of the Baton Rouge Zoo, Frost modernized the zoo’s “Realm of the Tiger” exhibit and supported conservation projects. He guided Baton Rouge tour groups on trips to places like South Africa and Tanzania as they visited animals in their natural habitats.

“We have animals that are critically endangered in their homeland,” Frost said. “Part of what we try to do at the zoo is using these animals as ambassadors to their cousins in the wild. We want to show how these animals are too magnificent to allow things to continue in the wild that are wiping them out.”

He pushed fundraising through the Friends of the Zoo foundation, and he also supported a philosophy that the zoo was better off with fewer animals that helped to support conservation efforts, rather than too many common species that visitors could see anywhere else.

But Frost also weathered several difficult periods in the zoo’s history. Those who grew up in Baton Rouge in the 1960s fondly remembered joining television star Buckskin Bill in a “penny drive” to raise money for the zoo to purchase two elephants, the first of which was, of course, named Penny. Elephants came and went over the years.

By 2013, an older elephant died at the zoo, and Frost decided to send the lone remaining elephant, Bozie, to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Frost explained that elephants need strong social interaction with other elephants and that it was the best choice for Bozie, but the decision was unpopular.

Between 2015 and 2018, Frost also led a controversial push to move the zoo. He sought fundraisers, and argued that the zoo could attract more visitors and more philanthropic dollars if it were more visible, especially along an interstate highway corridor in southeast Baton Rouge. He tried to sell BREC commissioners — and the public — on a $150 million plan to relocate the zoo to BREC’s Airline Highway Park, while renovating and expanding Greenwood Park in place of the zoo in north Baton Rouge.

The plan turned into a local political battle. It prompted outcry from politicians in north Baton Rouge, who argued that it was yet another example of the parish shifting all of its resources and businesses to southeast Baton Rouge, while those who lived near the proposed new zoo site in southeast Baton Rouge turned against the plan after many of them — and the park — flooded in 2016.

While the 2016 floods derailed much of the momentum behind the push to move the zoo, Frost said he’s most proud of that period of his tenure because of the way his staff, the community and zoos around the country came together.

“That was a very humbling time, but it was also a time of growth for our staff and I think our community,” Frost said. “We saw the good come out in people. We saw people helping others. We saw 40 or 50 zoos in the country that came to our zoo’s aid … That was one thing that made me extremely proud to be in the zoo world.”

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The zoo’s troubles continued from there.

Frost eventually lost the battle to relocate the zoo in March 2018 when the majority of BREC commissioners voted against the plan. Frost announced later that same week that the zoo had lost its 40-year-old accreditation from the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums, after inspectors raised concerns about outdated facilities, three animal escapes within 16 months and a lack of lighting near animal exhibits.

The zoo also had a string of animal deaths in 2016; less than two months ago, a giraffe named Burreaux died in its enclosure after suffering from an acute respiratory illness.

Frost said in 2018 that the zoo’s commitment to animal welfare would not waver, and that he hoped the loss of accreditation was a wakeup call for the need to invest in the zoo’s wellbeing.

Frost and BREC commissioners settled on a $35 million plan to redesign both the zoo and Greenwood Park in their current locations.

“(The loss of accreditation) was a tough blow, there’s no doubt about that,” Frost said. “But we knew why. We were able to express that to the leadership of BREC. They understood that, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing today.”

Frost doesn’t regret his efforts to move the zoo and said he’s glad the facility received the painful lesson of losing its accreditation in 2018 because of the way it galvanized zoo officials to overhaul the facility.

The plan to combine Greenwood Park with the zoo to create a 660-acre nature and recreation area is still in its first phase, but Frost said he’s “proud” of the role he’s played.

Frost’s successor will have to oversee the remainder of the massive project while leading a zoo that hasn’t had a different director since the 1990s.

“I think what makes a great zoo director, not just a good zoo director, is one who can balance their passion they have for the animals in their collection and their passion for the people they work with,” Frost said.

Staff writer Andrea Gallo contributed to this report.